After record year for drug overdoses, Malcolm X College to train community health workers to fight opioid addiction

The college’s Opioid-Impacted Family Support Program, supported by a $2.1 million federal grant, is helping train workers that can build trust by acting as a liaison between families and health care providers or social service agencies.

SHARE After record year for drug overdoses, Malcolm X College to train community health workers to fight opioid addiction
Luis Ramirez lost his brother to a drug overdose and is now dedicating his life to helping those with substance abuse issues.

Luis Ramirez lost his brother to a drug overdose and is now dedicating his life to helping those with substance abuse issues.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Luis Ramirez has been to multiple funerals of friends and relatives who were victims of gun violence, but those did not compare to the trauma he faced when he broke down a door and found the body of his older brother — dead from an opioid overdose.

“He was in our basement in a room with the door locked,” Ramirez, 27, said last week. “Me and my cousin took turns trying to knock the door down, and when we did, we saw him there, still with a needle in his arm. I won’t forget how cold he felt.”

That memory from five years ago has forever imprinted itself in Ramirez’s mind, but it is now also the catalyst for him wanting to work with other people who have been impacted by the opioid epidemic that has ravaged communities nationwide — contributing to record drug overdose deaths during the pandemic.

A new program being offered this fall at Malcolm X College is now helping Ramirez and others like him achieve that goal. The college’s Opioid-Impacted Family Support Program, supported by a $2.1 million federal grant, is helping train future community health workers in providing care and services to those battling substance abuse.

Ramirez, who was part of a trial run of the program this past spring semester, said his experience with his brother, Carlos Ramirez, will help him help others. He saw firsthand how the drugs altered Carlos’ personality, the roller coaster of emotions the family faced and how the family felt there wasn’t anywhere to go for assistance.

“We don’t see any kind of help in neighborhoods like mine where people are suffering the most, but because of this program, community health workers in Chicago will help address that,” Ramirez said. “The fact is, most people don’t have health insurance, and even if they did, they still don’t know about the resources that are out there.”

A community health worker is ideally a trusted member of a community with a deep understanding of the needs of fellow residents. They can help build institutional trust by acting as a liaison between families and health care providers or social service agencies, for example.

“We help draw those connections for people,” Ramirez said.

Luis Ramirez (bottom right) with his brother Carlos Ramirez (top left) who died from a drug overdose several years ago and their two other siblings Rene Murillo and Diana Murillo.

Luis Ramirez (bottom right) with his brother Carlos Ramirez (top left) who died from a drug overdose several years ago and their two other siblings Rene Murillo and Diana Murillo.

Provided.

Students will attend two different phases of the program. The first is a one-semester certificate program that includes five courses that train students to become community health workers with an emphasis on opioid crisis support. Students also will get 80 hours of field experience.

The second phase is a yearlong paid apprenticeship and mentorship that offers both part-time and full-time commitments.

Those in the program will receive up to $7,500 in stipends toward tuition, fees and books.

Overall, the program seeks to train 150 future community health workers over the four-year initiative’s lifespan.

The new program is a partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Disability and Human Development, the Gateway Foundation and the Public Health Institute of Metropolitan Chicago. The grant was provided by the Health Resources and Services Administration — a federal agency focused on improving health care in vulnerable communities across the country.

“This grant provides yet another opportunity for Malcolm X College to offer our students a career path in public health and provide a valuable resource to families battling opioid and substance abuse,” said David Sanders, president of Malcolm X College. “We join our partners in providing a much-needed population of community health workers to aggressively and compassionately combat this crisis.”

The launch of the program comes as drug overdose deaths in the United States hit a record high last year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated more than 93,000 people died of an overdose in 2020 — a 29% jump from the 72,000 deaths estimated in the previous year.

But those figures far exceed the estimated 53,000 overdose deaths in 2015, indicating how huge the problem was even before the pandemic.

“We, like all other health care providers, are experiencing significant challenges in recruiting a behavioral health care workforce, and this partnership will help us to address this need,” said Teresa Garate, senior vice president of strategic partnerships and engagement for the Gateway Foundation. “We stand alongside Malcolm X College to provide the highest-quality education grounded in best practices in the field and look forward to making a difference in our great city.”

Those interested in registering for the program can do so at www.ccc.edu/opioid.

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